More on Archeoastronomy

Zip Dobyns

The previous issue of The Mutable Dilemma described two of the articles in an issue of Technology Review which was focused on this relatively new field of study—a combination of archaeology and astronomy. The astronomy of early humanity was, of course, astrology, but as long as modern science remains committed to the premises of materialism, it is unable to deal with the concept of a meaningful world, and must limit its attention to material objects and forces. Despite this handicap, some very exciting material has been published, some of it within the last two years. The writers often feel obliged to defend their scientific stature as if even being interested in the area made them suspect of unreason. But at least they are exploring the area and beginning to comprehend the overwhelming importance of the celestial order to ancient humans.

One of the recent books on what the author calls “megalithic mysteries” was reviewed briefly in an issue of our News and Reviews. (“Megalith” means large stone.) The author, Evan Hadingham, is a young archeologist of England who does a good job of surveying a wide range of structures dating back as much as 5,000 years. He has drawn material from a number of specialists such as Alexander Thom who has given a lifetime to the study of stone-age astronomy. The picture which emerges implies a level of knowledge and intelligence far greater than previously suspected for “primitive” humans. Stonehenge, the best known of the great stone circles, is now dated at about 2750 B.C. for its initial building stage. Thom, Hoyle, Hawkins, and other authorities offer evidence that it was an astronomical observatory capable of locating the dates on which Sun and Moon reached their furthest positions north and south and thus could be used to forecast eclipses. A circle of 56 holes filled with chalk, named for their discoverer, Aubrey, was theoretically used to predict eclipses. Hadingham points out that the holes are so accurately spaced around a circle that the largest error is 21 inches. They could not have been measured off from pair to pair without a larger cumulative error, so some other geometrical method must have been used. Owen Gingerich, in one of the articles in Technology Review, comments that “Excavations at Stonehenge have revealed a series of post holes at angles northward of the Heel Stone in just the positions we would expect if someone was trying to establish the moon’s northernmost limit by trial and error.” Gingerich thinks that the early Stonehenge was actually an observatory, and that the later, (still standing) structure was a ritual center commemorating the earlier discoveries. He writes:

“At some point in the development of the site there was added onto the ring of Aubrey Holes two mounds and two additional marker stones, known as the station stones.... These four features form the corners of a rectangle centered on the sarsen ring, although the sarsen ring had not yet been built at that time. The short sides of the rectangle are parallel to the direction to the Heel Stone; hence they point to the extreme excursion of the sun. The long sides point to the extreme excursion of the moon. (Only at the latitude of Stonehenge are these extremes joined by a right angle; if this is significant, then these relationships were not discovered here, but the observatory was erected at this specific latitude to take advantage of a previous discovery).” p. 73

Hadingham describes many stone structures, including some which may have been as important to early humans as was Stonehenge if importance can be measured in the effort required to prepare, bring, and erect the huge stones. Wainwright, an archeologist who has excavated several of these less familiar sites in recent years, has estimated that 900,000 man-hours might have been required for each of 4 sites, and a 5th site, Avebury, must have demanded nearly double the labor of the others. Hadingham notes the variety of sites built within a relatively small geographic area and a relatively short time period, by humans limited to stone and bone tools without any written language as far as is known, and he marvels about the extraordinary period of communal activity and how little is still really known of the people. Only a knowledge of the importance of astrology, the correspondences of earth and sky, can explain such efforts, and science still cannot look at that possibility. Gingerich comes as close as he dares with the comment: “The combination of lunar and solar sightlines embodied in a great ritual center at Stonehenge suggests a well organized primitive cult, possibly with the sun and moon as male and female in some grand fertility rites. Such suggestions are mere speculation, for here the stones are even more silent.” p. 73

Like Gingerich, Hadingham emphasizes that the final Stonehenge was far more than an observatory. It was a power center, perhaps a trade center, possibly a royal palace. Callanish, a little-known site in Ireland, has actually provided more precise evidence for the astronomical knowledge of stone-age humans, than has Stonehenge, though the current expanded attention to archeoastronomy dates from Hawkins’ 1965 book Stonehenge Decoded. At Callanish, there are rows of huge, standing stone aligned to the north (accurate to .1 of a degree) and to the west (where they would have indicated sunset at the equinoxes). There are other alignments to conspicuous stars, including the positions of Capella and Altair in 1800 B.C. Another alignment marked the northerly limit of the 18.61 year lunar cycle. But at both Callanish and Stonehenge, the stones were so close together that, although they pointed in the right direction very accurately, identification of the exact day of the solstice would still have been difficult. A slight movement of the head of the observer could throw it off. Hence the suggestion that sites were more ritual than practical. Other sites, especially Ballochroy and Kintraw, which used siting lines of miles instead of feet, would have provided the accuracy to produce a calendar that marked the exact days of the solstices. Hadingham writes:

“These two sites could well represent the means by which a precise calendar system, probably used in other parts of early Britain, was established and kept in phase with the sun’s movements. Such a calendar would have had obvious practical uses for domestic and farming activities in exactly the way that we rely on the operation of our own calendar today. Yet it is difficult to view the concern for accuracy suggested for Kintraw and Ballochroy as essential for these purposes. It is certainly possible to speculate that the demand for an accurate calendar was set up by some specialist group in ancient Britain, perhaps by a ruling aristocracy or priesthood. The idea that such a calendar was an essential basis for more purely theoretical investigations of the sun and moon has been assumed by Professor Thom over many years of extraordinarily interesting research. Thom takes the concept that pure scientific investigation existed in early Britain to the point where, if he is right, prehistoric ‘professors’ must once have argued and proposed different theories on the critical movements of the sun and moon, four thousand years ago.” p. 114-115

From the early quest for a calendar, Hadingham continues to megalithing mathematicians, mysterious carvings, Druids and more, but I will leave the balance of his book for you to discover for yourself if you are interested in pursuing the area. However, before leaving the new discipline of archeoastronomy, I want to touch a different facet of this fascinating field. The last two articles of the special Technology Review issue which was devoted to the area are even more speculative than deductions about stone circles or ancient instruments. They deal with myth, offering some intriguing theories of associations between earth, sky, and mythology. Jerome Lettvin suggests that myths were used in the days before writing to provide a well-known ground on which other universes could be mapped. He writes: “There is for me a great poetic quality in a language whereby the relations of animals to each other, people to each other, the heavens to the earth, the gods to humankind, can all be worded in about the same way, until finally, by a single set of sentences, I can remember all of the universes as if they were maps of one another.” p. 75

Lettvin makes a good case for the Gorgons and Phorcyades in the myth of Perseus corresponding to squid, sepia, and octopus; he connects the diamond sword of Perseus to the meteor showers which regularly spring from the wrist of the figure in the constellation; he associates the binary (double and therefore “blinking”) star, Algol with the head of Medusa—more specifically, with the evil eye which can bring death. He writes:

“What do falling stars signify? Does it really surprise anyone to know that across many cultures each meteor corresponds to a sinless soul entering heaven, to a new-born child dying, to the death of a saintly one—always to death? But this shower of Perseids is, I claim, the diamond sword wielded by the hero who carries the Gorgon’s head whose blinding eyes covet the souls of the newborn—the Lilith, the dread Lamia, the cacodaemon.”

“We are told from ancient times that the sea and the sky are mirrors to one another. We see now that the mirror is not meant in any trivial sense; it is a mirror of relations. That is to say, what characterizes one can be read into the other, and without such a reading there is no language for expressing an astronomy in the first place.” p. 83

He comes pretty close to the concept of macrocosm and microcosm.

Lettvin ends his article by commenting that myth

“is dangerous, too, because you are sure to go too far when you attempt to reinterpret myth. I myself have gone much too far in this article, and so can be accused of making my own myth to render memorable the sundry places in the sky. I am not offended by that charge at all. If you find the story of the octopus, Algol, and the Gorgon Medusa irritating enough to recall, I will have explained the ancient arts of memory more by illustration than by proof. Most of you, of course, may prefer a rational account of things; but I was never one to put Descartes before Horus.” p. 83

The last article in the special issue of Technology Review which is devoted to archeoastronomy pursues a similar theme to Lettvin’s concept. Harald Reiche also supports the idea that what we express in technical, scientific language was once conveyed by myth, perhaps including melody, stylized pantomime and dances. He mentions Hertha von Dechend who has spent a lifetime collecting evidence that specific and recurrent tales, formulae, and motifs from mythology around the world are vehicles for transmitting certain kinds of astronomical and cosmological information. Monstrous deeds are offered to account for discrepancies in the sky such as the inclination of the sun’s and planet’s paths with respect to the fixed stars; the incommensurability of the solar and lunar years; the gradual changes of the fixed stars in relation to earth landmarks (due to precession); etc. The bulk of the Reiche article is devoted to the theory that Plato’s story of Atlantis is actually “an embellished version of what in original intention was a map of the sky.” p. 99 He feels that it was because the knowledge of the sky was considered sacred or esoteric that it was given only in oral transmission in somewhat veiled form. Reiche concludes:

“By using metaphorical and mythological language, the priestly experts in charge of archaic astronomy managed to reconcile two ostensibly conflicting responsibilities; that of acting as society’s encyclopedic memory and mouthpiece and that of transmitting the astronomical portion of this information in a form consistent with its sacred character. Notice that neither of these priestly roles compelled the experts to imagine that their myths embodied the entire ‘truth.’ On the contrary (to judge by Homer, Plato, and others), it seems to have been generally affirmed among the ancients that the intrinsic nature of the gods eludes mortal man. Doubtless, therefore, it was understood—at least by the experts—that a myth (or even a numerical law) would provide only limited insights. That is to say, it would express only the outward, observable behavior of celestial objects. But it would be of little help in plumbing the Reasons for both human and cosmic destiny. In much the same way does the unknown x of an algebraic equation serve to express the relations into which x enters, without specifying the ‘true’ nature of x itself.”

“All of this suggests that the ancient myth-makers may have thought of their stories as purely tentative and imaginative, i.e. as but the pseudo-historical, pseudo-geographic, and pseudo-zoological guises of deities unknowable in themselves. The myths, on that reading, reveal themselves as ways by which the ancients defined cognitive limits.” p. 100

How many of us today could be that wise?

How and where do we define cognitive limits?


Hadingham, Evan, Circles and Standing Stones, Walker & Co., New York, 1975.

Technology Review, Mass. Institute of Technology, Vol. 80, #2, Dec. 1977.

Copyright © 1978 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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